“We’ll not see him at his prime and best condition until after pre-season, I think – but he’s still contributing, so that shows you the quality he’s got.”

Steven Naismith’s post-match assessment of Barrie McKay’s performance against Dundee will understandably have Heart of Midlothian supporters licking their lips in anticipation of what’s to come. By the head coach’s own admission, the playmaker is still getting back up to speed: an ominous warning to the rest of the Premiership.

If this was McKay working at not-quite-100-per-cent, then goodness knows what the 29-year-old will be capable of once he is fully fit and firing on all cylinders once more. He was the game’s outstanding player on Saturday. It was the midfielder who crafted the opportunities for Kenneth Vargas and Alan Forrest to give Hearts a two-goal lead, and he lasted 80 minutes before being replaced by Scott Fraser. The on-loan Charlton Athletic man would grab an assist of his own in second-half stoppage time, slipping through Lawrence Shankland to provide the cherry on top of a productive afternoon for the men in maroon.

McKay’s interventions gained plenty of plaudits after the full-time whistle – and rightly so – but he the playmaker was only able to shine due to some clever tactical tweaks introduced by Naismith. Let’s take a look.

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Fluid front five

Let’s start with the team’s shape. The formation was nominally a 4-2-3-1, with Beni Baningime and Cammy Devlin sitting at the base of midfield, and Shankland in the No.10 role. McKay and Forrest lined up on the left and right wings respectively, and Kenneth Vargas led the line in attack.

Out of possession, Hearts largely stuck to this system. But when they were on the ball and attacking, the team’s shape morphed into something altogether different. Shankland would often drop into midfield and Devlin would push forward. Forrest and Vargas would get forward (and occasionally swap places) as Alex Cochrane moved infield, and McKay would hug the byline. It looked a bit like this.

Dundee struggled to get to grips with Hearts’ shifting shape throughout the game. Shankland dropping deep tended to drag centre-backs all over the place but it was Cochrane joining the midfield that caused the most headaches for Tony Docherty’s side. It gave Hearts the numerical advantage in the middle of the park, the visitors were hesitant at picking him up – and it allowed McKay to flourish.

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Cochrane gets central

When Hearts were building out from the back, Cochrane was the key player in creating space for McKay to play in. Here’s an example early on from Saturday. Shankland has dropped alongside Baningime as Cochrane has drifted over. The left-back is asking for the ball from Stephen Kingsley, and with good reason too – by drifting inside, the Englishman is unmarked.

Cochrane spins and charges forward when he gets it, and Devlin is occupying Dundee right-back Jordan McGhee. McKay, out on the touchline, is now completely free.

Cochrane slides it out to him as McGhee shuttles over, and now the pair are locked into a 1v1 duel. McKay drifts forward with the ball close at his feet, carefully choosing his moment.

He waits until the space opens up for Devlin, then plays a simple pass to the midfielder. The Aussie has a pop at goal that’s ultimately blocked, and it’s hard to blame him. But perhaps Shankland was the better option.

A few minutes pass and a similar scenario unfolds. Kingsley has the ball once more, but this time Dundee are putting pressure on the ball. He plays it into Cochrane, who’s forced to play it back to Kingsley, but look at the bottom left of the screen. Devlin’s in acres of space and has to be the ball’s destination.

Devlin receives it and draws another man towards him, using his body well to pirouette and shield the ball, drawing applause from Naismith. He quickly shifts it out to McKay, who has been afforded the freedom of Gorgie.

McKay drives forward and ends up in another 1v1 situation with McGhee. He backs himself to win it but on this occasion, the former Hearts defender steals the ball back.

Cochrane’s presence in the middle was causing all sorts of problems as Dundee repeatedly failed to pick him up. Barely a minute later, he again receives the ball in a promising position. No one has picked him up, so he drives forward. Ahead of him, Devlin makes a run to provide an option, and Malachi Boateng follows the Aussie.

Cochrane is now within 30 yards of goal and still no one has closed him down. McKay has held his position out on the left wing and McGhee is too far wide as a result. Boateng decides to stand Cochrane up and as he does, Devlin is allowed to run free. If Cochrane plays him in, it’s surely a one-on-one for the midfielder.

Instead, Cochrane continues to drift forward before having a pop – and his shot is blocked and cleared.

Hearts had been working the ball into promising areas through Cochrane, but that all-important final pass had been lacking. The ploy was working, even if they didn’t have the rewards to show for it until McKay put an end to that. Again, the move starts in a similar fashion. Kingsley has the ball, and he plays it into the unmarked Cochrane’s feet.

Cochrane again drives forward unopposed before shifting out wide to McKay to create another 1v1 situation at the back.

McKay drifts inside and this time wins his duel through some tremendous footwork that leaves McGhee chasing shadows. The other Dundee players rush over to put pressure on the ball, but they’re not getting there before McKay makes his next move.

He could touch it over to Shankland (how many times have we seen the Hearts skipper score from such positions over the past two years?) but instead, he lofts a terrific ball into Vargas at the back post.

Just look at how close the Costa Rican is to goal. He can’t miss – and he doesn’t.

You simply can’t allow a player of McKay’s technical ability space in the final third to weave his magic, but Dundee did so time and again on Saturday. The visitors continually failed to get to grips with Cochrane drifting inside – and they could have no complaints when they finally paid the penalty.

READ MORE: Steven Naismith on Wilson and McKay's performance and gives Hearts duo update

Direct counter-attacking

The Cochrane-McKay axis was proving effective during Hearts’ more patient periods of build-up play, with Naismith’s side waiting until all the pieces were in the right position before going for the jugular. But this wasn’t the only way they managed to hurt Dundee.

The visitors had a tendency to push up and employ a high line, allowing the likes of Forrest and Vargas to hurt them on the break. We haven’t seen too much pacey and direct counter-attacking from Hearts this season, but we saw flashes of it on Saturday – and Dundee didn’t look comfortable when having to deal with them.

Here’s an early example. Dundee have piled bodies forward when Baningime cuts out a loose pass and releases McKay, who turns and drives menacingly towards what’s left of the visitors’ backline.

McKay drifts forward, drawing Boateng towards him before shifting it out to Vargas.

Vargas beats his man with some neat footwork, creating space to drive into before playing it inside to McKay.

Hearts are now in a 3v4 situation, but Forrest and Devlin are charging forward down the right to provide support. McKay plays it forward to Shankland as Vargas drifts towards the back stick.

Shankland holds the ball up and his marker refuses to engage. Ryan Astley is half-heartedly marking Vargas at the back post, McGhee is still getting back, and the Hearts striker is telling Shankland exactly where he wants it.

Shankland is on the same wavelength and tries to pick out his team-mate. If his cross lands pretty much anywhere in the highlighted area then there isn’t much Dundee can do about it.

That’s exactly what Hearts’ No.9 does, and Vargas meets it well, but Jon McCracken is able to bat it away.

Vargas would of course have more joy the next time he attacked the back post as he broke the deadlock, and the opening goal changed the complexion of the game. Now Dundee would have to look to seize the initiative and take more risks if they wanted to get back into the game. That’s exactly what they did: and Hearts made them pay.

When Docherty’s men came out for the second half, they did so employing a higher backline and pressed Hearts higher up the park. It meant that attacking forays into the final third became rarer for the home side, but a yawning chasm opened up behind the Dundee defence. Just eight minutes after the restart, Hearts took full advantage.

The move starts with Kye Rowles. Hearts are fairly deep, and Cochrane has once again drifted inside as McKay hugs the touchline. Rowles plays it out to McKay, but it’s what’s going on in the middle of the park that really matters here. Keep an eye on Devlin.

McKay gets it and uses his body well to hold off the Dundee defender and retain possession as Shankland drops to offer another option, dragging Juan Portales with him. The Mexican centre-half has unwittingly created a gap at the back – and Devlin requires no second invitation to race into it.

McKay still has it and has drawn another player towards him, and now Dundee are in real trouble. Luke McCowan in the middle has let Devlin sprint away and Portales is in no man’s land. Aaron Donnelly, the left centre-back, has to get across to cover – and leaves a gaping hole to the left.

McKay does well to shimmy his way out of trouble, and then he spots the gap. He can try and play through Devlin – a tricky pass, but if anyone is capable of pulling it off, it’s McKay – but he opts for an even better pass through to Forrest, who has a run on Owen Dodgson.

The through ball is sublime, McCracken rushes out – and it’s game over for Dundee.